In yesterday’s blog entry, I discussed the matter of faith and the spiritual within your fiction. Today’s entry is concerned with a more earth-bound, fleshy concept. Yes, in the words of the two prophets, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, let’s talk about sex.
Sex in fiction is always a tricky topic to handle well. After all, it’s an enormous factor in life. Indeed, if it wasn’t for sex, you wouldn’t have been born. The trouble comes in that writing about these topics can very easily descend into the puerile. Let’s look at some of the pitfalls of writing about sex.
Perhaps the most obvious pitfall in the description of sexual acts is that it can veer to close towards the pornographic with nothing but naked description and vulgar terminology. While there might be a place for that, I would wager that the place probably isn’t contained within your novel (even if you are writing a form of erotica) where a sex scene should be used to either reveal something about the characters or further the plot, just like any other scene. The actual physical mechanics of the act are frequently less important than the fact that the act is taking place between these two (or more) characters.
Another issue with description is getting so wrapped up in florid metaphors that the scene descends into unlooked-for humor. The sheer pretentiousness in a description of what Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten once described as “two minutes and fifty-two seconds of squelching noises” is more likely to take a reader out of the story with a guffaw rather than bring them to a more intimate connection with the characters, so enraptured have they become with your deathless prose.
Things can, of course, go too far in the other direction. Flat, adjective-less descriptions of the physical acts of lovemaking can become very clinical and almost textbook like, draining the scene of any emotion or connection with the reader. An emotionless sex scene can work if you’re trying to show that a character is very detached, or has the pathology of a sociopath or similar, but there are probably better ways of handling both that don’t read like you have cut and pasted something from a freshman biology treatise on reproduction.
One other thing that I have noticed, particularly in fan fiction, are descriptions of superhuman feats of sexual prowess that just aren’t realistically possible. Beyond a lot of potential pain and chafing issues, I’ll point out that a male who is able to, shall we say, “maintain readiness” for four hours or more is a medical condition, not a goal. I’m bombarded with reminders of this fact whenever I watch an NFL game, thanks the omnipresent commercials by manufacturers of little blue pills.
So, how does one avoid these pitfalls? In my case, I cheat. As I’m usually writing in a genre where sex scenes are not necessary, I can get away with it more. For example, in my fantasy novel, I might have the knight accompany a harlot to the private bedchamber above the tavern, and begin unlacing her bodice. Then the chapter or scene ends and when we return, the morning sunlight is flooding through the bedchamber’s window as the knight refastens his greaves and makes haste to leave. The implication is there (and would hopefully be better written than in this paragraph) but the details are not. It’s the equivalent of fading to black or cutting away in a movie.
How do you handle sex within your works, gentle readers?
(Photograph by: Mike Swope)